"And then, twenty years later . . .": A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen
* The following conversation took place at Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany on June 25, 1997, immediately following the completion a three-day symposium entitled "Theories of Representation in American Indian Literatures: European and North American Perspectives." The symposium brought together European and American scholars and Native writers to share research topics and approaches, and the discussions that ensued were enjoyably intense and wide ranging. Since much of it brought historical contexts to bear in the discussion of Native texts, it seemed only appropriate to discuss the last twenty years with Paula, who was one of the participants in the 1977 Flagstaff conference that resulted in the formation of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.
The following is an edited transcription of that conversation. The text is as close to the original substance, with interruptions and repetitive exclamations--such as Well, ah . . . and the repeated laughter (unfortunately)--omitted. *
John Purdy (JP): Its interesting, this morning, to be talking about the last twenty years, though, and thats one of the fun things about doing with this issue of S.A.I.L. Its been twenty years since Flagstaff. And as you were saying this morning theres a lot thats happened in 20 years.
Paula Gunn Allen (PGA): Tremendous, so much . . .
JP: Yeah . . .
PGA: Its hard to know what the group . . . the first meetings were so funny. Youd go to M.L.A. [Modern Language Associations annual conference], and thered be this nice group of English professors or American lit[erature] professors, whatever. The first one I went to was, it must have been 73, Michael Dorris and myself and one other person, I forget who it was, and the people in the audience were asking, no, making these comments like, "Well, I know an Indian and he told me that the Indian way is blahda blahda blahda blahda." And then, by the time I went to the last M.L.A. I went to, which was a couple of years ago in San Francisco, the level of the discussion is like the level here, at this symposium. It was, just, so far beyond what we could even dream of doing then. Its ah . . . Im on the eve of retiring and I feel completely comfortable, in terms of my responsibility, to the community, because my job has been to work in the literary field, and thats my contribution to our people, and I feel completely comfortable. Its not a problem. Theres enough people out there doing enough variety of things, with really some solid approaches, that are useful to the Native people as well as to the literary community. So its perfectly all right; I can quit and others can do it as well. *Oh good!*
I started doing criticism because nobody could read my work. Nobody could read Momadays or anybodys, and so I started writing about it because there was no other way to get a readership. Quite selfishly for myself, although I never made any money from it. It was a bit disgusting that everybody elses [non-Native writers] work was being studied . . .
JP: Well, thats kind of interesting, because if one thinks of all the works people refer to most often, many of them are yours. Not just fiction or poetry, but the criticism. The Sacred Hoop, the early ones, Studies in American Indian Literatures. Those are two prominent things that came perfectly spaced in this twenty years . . .
PGA: Actually they are the first ones out of my [creative] work, and the novel came between Studies and The Sacred Hoop. But, since I began as a poet and a novelist, and then I did these other things because they needed to be done--and I do enjoy it, I really enjoy it--I feel overshadowed, like I should have stayed with poetry, like Joy [Harjo] or Linda [Hogan], or Jim Welch or so many others, and stayed as a creative artist, but then I tend to have a discursive mind, as well as the other kind, so, when I stop to think about it I realize, yeah, I couldnt have done that.
JP: Well its been an interesting time, a few decades of talking about the literature and then the different critical approaches that have come along, some of which have evolved (some of which havent) over the past twenty years, but also the books, the novels, the poetry, the drama itself. I mean, my god, it is truly phenomenal.
PGA: But there was nothing then, and now theres everything, like I said earlier. I cant even keep up with it all . . .
JP: None of us can . . .
PGA: For a while there I could do Native American Literature [a course]; it was so hurried to try to do it in one semester, particularly the contemporary literature, meaning from Apess forward, but it could be done. There just wasnt that much in print. By 1982, I was at U.C,L.A. on a grant, and my idea was to do a comprehensive anthology of Native American Womens Poetry. After I counted 200 American Indian women in print, I gave up. I thought: it just cant be done. By then you couldnt do American Indian poetry and do it justice, there was just too many poets, let alone American Indian Womens poetry. But in 77 you could have done it, and you could have at least given a wide representation of much of the poetry that was in print. Can you imagine that?! Since then, its very hard to deal with just one persons work. Isnt that wonderful? Its so exciting for me.
So then I went to fiction, the novel, and I specialized in that for quite a while, and finally short fiction started getting published. There was only a Richard Seavers book [edited by Kenneth Rosen], The Man to Send Rain Clouds, until the late 80s. And after Granddaughters came out I was amazed, that was received so well. I couldnt believe it. I just didnt think people read short story collections, never mind Native American womens short story collections. And that was reviewed in the New York Times and in The Chronicle, it was a "Pick of the Month" and of the year, and one thing and another, and it was just delightful, because the works are so splendid. Oh, my, it was a delight to be asked to edit. So, now, there are so many fiction anthologies that I cant even deal with them all either.
JP: Thats whats amazing about these last twenty years, too, is certain points in that history where something like Spider Womans Granddaughters comes along and its so successful that it opens some doors and then its progressive because each work thats produced, just demonstrates again and again the power of the works that are being produced . . .
PGA: Without Momaday and House Made of Dawn and the Pulitzer Prize none of us would be here, because it made people in publishing and the academy more willing to pay attention, than they had ever been. Our big problem now is to get ourselves out of that minority literature "The Oppressed People Garden," which I find entirely irrelevant. Its not multi-cultural literature. Ive taught Asian American literature, meaning Korean American, Chinese American, Japanese American, Vietnamese American and Ive taught Chicana American, Hispanic, Latina, and Ive taught Black American, Carribean., et cetera. Our situation, the Native peoples situation, is *quite* different. We dont belong in Ethnic Studies, anymore than English does, and English is, from my point of view as an Americanist, an ethnicity. And English literature should be studied in Comparative Literature. And American literature should be a discipline, certainly growing from England and France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the Native traditions, particularly because those helped form the American canon. Those are our backgrounds. And then wed be doing it the way it ought to be done. And someday I hope that it will be.
But certainly we [Native writers] make no more sense [being studied] with African American literature than we make with "New World" American literatures. Its not sensible to put us into that category. Are we oppressed? Well, yes, we are, but no were not, because we still live on our own land, and we still live with our own gods, and we still live with our own ceremonies, and so people have moved, or were forcibly moved, but they took themselves with themselves. That was actually common, like with the Sioux, who eventually emerged out on the plains as the Lakota. But they took themselves with themselves on that entire, long, that centuries-long journey. So its not that theyve lost that Native tradition; they just moved. And they have re-moved. I mean if you look at the oral traditions, which is what we must look to if we are going to do accurate and responsible criticism, we can see that these things actually happened. We see that abduction narratives were a very important part of Native American traditions, if it was the Shoshonis, or Laguna or whatever, we find these abduction narratives. And contemporary Native cultures dont have any slave narratives. What they did was they took the abduction narrative and shifted it to contemporary situations, so that all that happens is that the oral tradition gets reframed, but s the same story. Its just got a different setting. Different costumes, same story.
JP: Thats interesting. One of the things people have been discussing in academics for at least 20 years, if not longer . . . is, well, we get into the binaries again, dont we? Should there be a Native American literatures course, or should it be studied in the "American canon?" So that has always been a debate, but to take a topical approach like "what we have carried with us" or abduction stories, and then we could look at various cultures . . .
PGA: And then you could do it without creating the dimensional problems weve been having, because its not binary, its not either/or, and the thing is I would like to call the university a multiversity. The university means theres only one god, theres only one way to do things, and to me that is directly counter to the American experience. Thats fine for the English or the French, or whoever, and in discussion they say they dont like that [to be grouped together] but then why do they do it to us? Why cant we have many literatures, all of which are American? African American literature is not African. It really isnt. Its American literature informed by the experiences here and African oral traditions, which were brought over from various African nations.
JP: Well, that makes a lot of sense. If were ever going to be able to have a true discourse we have to get rid of those simplistic determinations; the thing is, and its always been kind of fascinating to me, that the geographical space we call the U.S.A. has always been multi-cultured. What has happened is there has been a construction and perpetuation of a myth of a uni-cultural experience.
PGA: Well, you know, I think its Christian. You can only have one god, one holy and apostolic church. Okay, so imbedded in western thought for two-thousand years, or fifteen hundred years at least, is the idea of one king, one emperor, one people. But thats not true. And even the motto e pluribus unum, out of many one, but really what we have is out of many, many. And its wonderful, cause thats the reality. Have you ever heard of one anything? You cant just have one leaf, youve got to have the whole tree.
JP: If you have only one thing, it dies off.
PGA: Gone. Thats right. Everything has to be community, and it has to be multiple-community literature. Thats what it has to be. Theres no reason why we cant develop contemporary Native American stance that enables us to generate political strategies that will apply. Not the same ones for everyone, but the appropriate ones for the case that youre examining. I dont see why, especially with computers and all. I think the issue is about status.
JP: Right back to what we were talking about earlier.
PGA: You have got to have "the right one," because once you have mastered "the right one" you can become the elite, and what worries them is they wont be the elite anymore and then what would they do for meaning? Well, they might have to get a life, and we cant have that.
But just in terms of, well from Flagstaff to now,--that I can say these things, that I can even think these things--is such an enormous leap. Therere so many approaches, therere so many writers, therere so many critical studies, which I find all delightful.
JP: It is exciting, the way it should be.
PGA: Even when theyre wrong, they dream up excellent ways of saying why, and in what ways they succeed and in what ways they fail, which we couldnt do then. All we could do was stand there and say "No, no, no" because we didnt know that kind of [critical] language and those kinds of critical strategies, to work from.
Weve come all this way, to a point where Mary Churchill can develop a *Cherokee* critical approach. Its just staggering. Like Henry Louis Gates did with The Signifying Monkey, and certainly for me that was a model of thinking, thinking, "Look. He did it." Hes got an Africanist model, that is mediated by what they call "New World" experience.
So, by the time you get to popular thought, yes, you have Esu-Elegbara but you have something very unique, very American and that is peculiar to African experience in the United States, as opposed to the Caribbean, as opposed to Brazil I suppose, or wherever. But its distinctly not just African. And you could take the critic as the man at the crossroads, the one who interprets, what the gods said to the speaker, the writer, the poet, duh dah duh da duh da (the expression). You have the code--I cant remember their name for the code [alphabert of Mawu?]--but theres an actual code, and the critic is the one who knows the code, and she decodes it. Just as the case in the Esu-Elegbara figure decodes whats coming through the channel, the trans-medium. So, you begin to see that the critic fits into a tradition thats entirely whole. Its not about appropriating, its about interpreting.
JP: As long as the critic doesnt keep the code [secret].
PGA: Well, thats the thing. You have to know the code well, and then you can share it.
Instead, if you dont know it well, of course you hide it because you dont want anyone to know how ignorant you are.
JP: Good point.
PGA: No, I agree the code has to be there for all.
JP: Along those line, then, since we began this by talking about the last 20 years, what do you see happening next?
PGA: I dont know.
JP: Part of the fun of it, huh?
PGA: Yeah, because I truly do believe that when white buffalo calf was born, that when the blue star kachina returned, thats what they called the Hale-Bopp comet, thats Quetzalcoatl, its actually a whole new game.
But if things stay going in the many directions in which they are going, certainly in publication, our voice will be heard more and more strongly, because readers love it. Far more than publishers, and far more than the academy, just readers, out there, really relate to it. Because I think that Native stories, and novels and poetry, speak to something thats peculiarly with America. It catches American readers, because were all trying to figure who we are and what were doing here. Canadian Native writers dont write that way. Theres very different stuff going on up there, and south of the United States, theyre writing about other kinds of things, but all American, U.S. folks are sitting around going "Who the hell are we? Where do we come from? And isnt this difficult?" Were trying to negotiate too many traditions too many ways of understanding. And thats what Native writers are dealing with.
Among all the writers, that is why weve got to get out of ethnic literature because the strategies for understanding it dont work, for understanding Native literatures. Very little of our literature is the literature of protest, of oppression. Very little of it. Most of it is the literature of the spirit or the literature of ritual. Almost all of it is, call it political voice and drama, is always informed by the presence of this knowledge that there is always this other world, with which we are always engaged. It isnt over "there" somewhere; its in our presence and our midst and we are in its presence and its midst. You cant get a text if you dont get that, as a principle. You cant do that with African American literature or Chinese American literature or so on. Though I do . . . and I find all kind of things in their works that their own critics arent finding, because they all have a tendency to stay connected to the spirit world. Womens literature often does, too, unless its pretending that it isnt x or y. In which case it turns out to be something else entirely.
JP: Are you back to the genetic model [which we discussed during our final symposium meeting]?
PGA: Im back to the genetic model of X and Y. Well, whats interesting about that is all zygotes are X, and for some reason, and nobody has talked about why, (but maybe its a mutation) one leg of the X gets dropped as the zygote becomes an [female] embryo. Okay, so then, what gets lost is that socialization capacity.
For a long time feminists talked about women networking but I know an awful lot of women who do no such thing. And so I couldnt understand . . . I knew there was something to it. It doesnt matter where I go. I sit down and we start talking about babies and shopping and hairdos and were fine. All the woman needs are the culture she comes from and to share all this. And then theres the boy culture, the football and the sports, etc. Men tend not to communicate. All the studies show it, and they just dont and thats their way. And then women are at them all the time, "But you dont talk, but you wont share." But then this study came out, and it was published in Nature magazine June 1997, . . . it explained to me the difference between the male and the female and I think its significant.
Certainly in a Native world you have strongly gendered traditions and you cant really say "Kiowa is," you have to say Kiowa male, or Kiowa female, because they really are different, and thats very important in oral traditions, and it continues to inform the literature. Look at the treatment of women in Welch and Momaday and so on, compared to the treatment of women in Allen or Hogan what have you. Its not that we sit around and think "Well, lets see, the womans tradition is. . ."; you just grow up, being informed of these things and nobody says thats "the Indian way." Its just part of what you learn from your folks. They seldom identify it in any way, so you just think thats how reality is--at least that is how your reality is. Its going back to this genetic code, for how we understand reality. Theres a male code and theres a female code. Neither one is better or more important, obviously, or they wouldnt both be here would they? And the truth is probably more complex than that. Theres probably like nine genders. I was just reading about the Eskimos--they didnt say Inuit--a very contemporary documentary on the number of genders, that these people experience within their communities. And if you look at the genders we recognize: theres male, female, homosexual male, bisexual male, lesbians who go both ways, estrogen conscious, but also in another valence, then theres the true hermaphrodite, and theres probably variations within there, like theres people with fundamental heterosexual feelings who have strong homosexual pulls, and thats probably pretty common. In each case theres the male partner and the female partner. Theres people with XXY chromosomes and XYY chromosomes and all of this is going to have an effect, not just on gender but on consciousness. But the tribal people pay attention to this, and the modern people try to eradicate these differences.
PGA: Exactly, theres only one way. Instead of saying there are many ways and we need them all, unless this were true, we wouldnt all be here. It seems to me fairly straightforward.
And that goes for criticism too. Back to your question: what will happen, if were lucky is that American scholars will continue to work the way most of us are working, which is to open it up. Open it up. As chaos theory . . . and theres some new stuff, that I cant remember the name of, Change Theory or something like that, and I havent had time to research it, but something called the principle of mediocrity, which is the idea of the golden mean, or the median: anything that is, will tend toward balance, will tend toward the median, which opens up everything. You dont have to find the extremes, because what will happen is that the patterns will keep reiterating but that also means varying. So we will always come back to what it was, but it will always go away from what it was.
JP: Well, that kind of fits in with what you were talking about this morning, especially with the image of the swirling water. Its [the world views of Natives and non-Natives] fundamentally a very minor shift in ones point of view, but its a world apart.
PGA: Youre right. It turns out to be major, and all you have to do is shift your eyes a little bit and suddenly you realize that wider pattern: its the tree pattern, its the hill pattern, its the grass pattern, its the literature discussion pattern, is the . . . is the . . . is the . . . and they are all singing to each other, you know, which is of course what we say. It was a dance sweetheart. Theres Joy Harjo. And thats exactly why it works. "Something sacred is going on in the universe" Momaday says. Or grandson, this earth is fragile. And were all saying the same thing. Im saying chaos, mandlebrot set, julius set, pay attention here, look at fractals. Because in this way we can explain not only our literature, but now everybody, once we develop these process appropriately, well be able to give a fair shake to anybodys book, to take the book itself on its merits, where it comes from, rather than trying to make it an issue like the canonical blah blah blah. Well who cares? What is it? Not, what is it like?
JP: Yeah, thats a good point. It has to go that way doesnt it? If it doesnt were in deep trouble.
PGA: It just terrifies me.
JP: Its going to be just that much more fragmentary and divisive.
PGA: Balkanized, as they like to say in the States. Fragmented. Bricolage! [Earlier in the day there was a long discussion about the implications of this French term.]
JP: Bricolage! Lets talk about your Bricolage.
PGA: Ill tell you about my Bricolage; I huffed and I puffed and I couldnt blow it down.
JP: Wonderful . . . wonderful. So whats on for you next? What about writing?
PGA: Ive been working on a book called The Seven Generations. Its supposed to be a book about Native spiritual systems. A sort of "how to be an Indian without even really trying." Everything you ever wanted to know about being an Indian but were afraid to ask. But I really mean that in the sense of what I mentioned in the talk today. Theres this mythic sense and there is this way of perceiving, and that the dances are somehow connected to that, so you cant just get a drum and sit around and chant and feel good, and call yourself enlightened. Thats not how it is. The idea is to work out a text, that will help people who are searching. This is not a literary text; its not meant for literature people. In fact, I see this conference as my last literary thing that Im doing in Native literature, perhaps in any literature because I want to move away from it. My own calling has always been of the spirit and I just want to do that before I get too old and cant. So thats happening. Ive got a book of essays that Beacon has picked up and will coming out within a year. All my essays until now.
JP: A collection of your essays.
PGA: Everything. Stuff that was not in The Sacred Hoop but that predates it, and a number of things that Ive written since. I dont know the title yet. I think Im going to argue for Pocahontas Perplexed: An Indian Womans View of Life, Literature and Philosophy. The publishers want it to be A Native Americans View of . . . and I dont like that. I want, you know, just one person. Its just me, what I think. Im saying these things. I know what I think; thats my responsibility. Im not supposed to know what other people think.
I just had a book of poetry published called Life is a Fatal Disease. West End Press brought it out. Nice book, Albuquerque. And I did a book called As Long as the Rivers Shall Flow, with Pat Smith. Its nine biographies, for young people. Scholastic picked it up.
JP: Scholastic just did something by Tiffany Midge, too, and some other people are under contract. Looks like this going in the direction it needs to go in, that audience.
PGA: Absolutely, to get over these stupid images [of Native people] like the ones we were talking about yesterday.
Lets see, what else? Oh, Song of the Turtle came out, so that collection is complete. But I would like to write several more volumes: Son of Turtle, Turtle Island and Turtle Soup. And The Revenge of Turtle . . .
JP: And Turtle XIII.
PGA: And Turtle XIII, yes. In some other life, perhaps.
JP: About that anthology, when you talked about that anthology this morning, you said you conceived of it not as most editors, or publishers, do--as a collection of distinct and discreet units--but as a novel. That was wonderful!
PGA: It goes back to the Flagstaff conference when Revard said, "Yes, but is it Indian to write novels?" And I spent years thinking about that, and I thought, yes, actually, it is. We have something that would fit what folklorists call cycles; so theres the old woman cycle, the trickster cycle, or the warrior cycle, on and on, the deer dance cycle. Well, those are long involved narratives, that go quite a long time. Well a novel is a long involved narrative that goes on a long time. But in truth you can see that certain thematic concerns, preoccupations will arise and then get reiterated and explored and deepened and then theyll get dropped and later they will be picked back up. So, in essence, our cycles are doing the same thing. Probably, novels developed out of the same kind of thing.
JP: Yes, like you said, very event structured, but they are strung together by certain concerns . . .
PGA: Yeah, theres a narrative coherence, or thematic units . . .
So, then, given that, if you take a whole bunch of stories that are about Native female supernaturals, like my Grandmothers of the Light, why . . . what happened--and I didnt know this would happen--was all these different Native nations were telling the same story.
[Here, the tape ended. Once it was replaced and the recorder ready, we moved back into a discussion of criticism.]
JP: You were saying that, thats what Aristotle did, he looked at the text, rather than trying to impose something on it.
PGA: Thats what I was taught in criticism class.
JP: Well, so was I. People look down on the New Critical approach and brand it as something outdated and insignificant, but actually its all in how you use it. Isnt it?
PGA: Im a firm defender of the New Critical approach. I just dont think theres anything else you can do. All the rest is extra. If you cant do that one, then you cant do the others.
JP: It goes back to that coding we were talking about, too. All of a sudden you have a language there that you dont want to share or open up for other people. Ive always considered some of the things happening today, especially in Native literary criticism, as a post-facto prophecy. In other words, this is what its going to be, and if it doesnt fit this pattern or this mold, then it is something else. Very prescriptive.
PGA: Even the scientists do that and theyre not supposed to. I read Francis Bacon and I know what theyre supposed to do as scientists. But they have this wonderful thing called the Null Set. What you do, basically, is erect an hypothesis based upon what your important, high status predecessors have done, and then compel the data to conform to it. If it doesnt, then you throw it into the Null Set. Isnt that cute?
JP: Right. We need more null sets.
PGA: Yeah. I dont like that kid. Lets throw it in the trash.
Instead of saying thats going on for a reason, I wonder why? Maybe its my approach, my methodology, a variety of things, but there it is, lets examine it. But if I understand Bacon, he said we are to look at what is there, examine it, and then, perhaps, come up with some comments which will lead us to the next plane of exploration. Something was said today, something about answers. And I wanted to say, no, no, no. Thats not the point. Its not about answers; its about good questions.
JP: Good questions, yes.
PGA: One exploration leads to another, thats fractal.
JP: Right. Answers are conclusive, questions open up possibilities.
PGA: Answers stop discussion, close out possibilities. Questions open them and encourage conversation.
JP: Course lots of people just want the answers.
PGA: My students, for instance. "Just give me the answers so I can get an A."
JP: I was talking about Green Grass, Running Water yesterday, and in the beginning King has the classroom with Mary Rowlandson, and anthropologists in it, asking "Is this going to be on the test? Do we have to remember this?"
PGA: Its like the doctor who says I could really practice medicine here, if it werent for the patients.
JP: But thats what its all about, isnt it? The students. Thats what keeps us going.
PGA: Yeah. So often, I have good students. Im lucky that way. Theyre always teaching me things I would have never thought. Thats my idea of how to teach.
JP: It blows them away when you say that, though. Its funny, you take 25 undergraduates and drop a text on them youve used before, and theyll see things youve never seen, even after reading it a dozen times.
PGA: And theyll see stuff, and theyre always taken aback, because they are so used to professors who already know everything--or, who dont, but wont ever admit it. Not to undergraduates at least.
JP: And the joy continues.
PGA: The story goes on.
* My appreciation to my editorial assistant, Aaron Gorseth, for the initial transcription of the audio tape of this conversation.